Thursday, July 19, 2012

Spence Airport (KMUL), Moultrie, Georgia: Tax would improve runway

Kevin Hall
The Moultrie Observer

MOULTRIE — Possibly the most contentious project on Colquitt County’s list for the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax is the runway at Spence Field.

The runway dates back to the field’s military days, training pilots for combat in World War II. In its heyday, it was 10,000 feet of usable runway.

But that isn’t the case anymore, according to Moultrie City Manager Mike Scott.

The city maintains the old airfield, Scott said, but it hasn’t had the money for major maintenance projects there. The runway has deteriorated until there’s about 4,500 usable feet left.

“The cost to rehabilitate it will put it back where it was,” he said: 8,000 feet of usable runway with a 1,000-foot margin at each end for safety.

Voters in Southwest Georgia will decide July 31 whether to tax themselves an extra penny on the dollar to fund transportation projects throughout the region. Eight projects are planned for Colquitt County; the Spence Field runway is the only aviation project here and one of five aviation projects throughout the region.

The project is expected to cost almost $4.2 million with all of it paid for by the TSPLOST. If the tax is passed this year, construction is expected to start between 2020 and 2022.

“We just slipped into a niche that we could really benefit from,” Moultrie Mayor Bill McIntosh said.

The Georgia Department of Transportation issued guidelines as the region’s counties prepared their list of potential projects. Those guidelines included target percentages for various sorts of projects: A certain percentage for transit, for example, a certain percentage for bridge replacement, and so on … including a certain percentage for aviation.

McIntosh, who was on the executive committee that culled through the projects to make the final list, said the Spence Field project was initially cut, but as the committee reviewed the final list they found the aviation expenditure was short of the DOT’s guidelines. A scarcity of other aviation projects presented an opportunity to put the upgrade back in.

“We feel it is an asset unique in the state of Georgia,” McIntosh said.

That’s almost irrefutable: The only civilian airport in Georgia with a runway 10,000 feet long or more is Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Its main runway is 11,800 feet, according to Three military bases — Dobbins Air Force Base, Hunter Army Air Field and Robins Air Force Base — also have runways 10,000 feet or more.

Closer to home, the longest runways at Valdosta Regional and Tallahassee Regional airports are 8,000 feet, and the longest runway at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport (Albany) is 6,600. Moultrie Municipal Airport has a 5,100-foot runway.

That, in fact, is one of the areas of contention about the TSPLOST as callers to The Observer’s Rant and Rave question why Moultrie needs one of the longest runways in the state.

Currently, the Spence Field runway is used extensively during the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, which is also held at Spence Field, and it is used by two businesses, Maule Manufacturing and Maule Flight, both of which are housed near the runway, according to Scott.

In addition, Air Force personnel from Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta used the runway for touch-and-go practice a few years ago. In fact, the Air Force was the last group to make significant improvements to the facility. They added a control tower and a fire station there in support of the training.

“That was probably the last money put into it,” Scott said. “There was no local money put into it except your regular grass mowing and some pavement repair.”

The idea is economic development. The Spence Field runway is adjacent to an industrial park, and Scott said the length of the runway has attracted interest from industrial manufacturers, presumably thinking about shipping their products on cargo planes.

Other than cargo, businesses also use airports to ferry personnel to other towns. Currently, that role is filled by Moultrie Municipal Airport, located on Thomasville Highway about 2 miles outside of Moultrie and about 6 miles from downtown. The Spence Field runway, located just off Quitman Highway is within the city limits and is about 5 1/2 miles from downtown.

Spence Field is maintained by the City of Moultrie. Moultrie Municipal Airport is maintained by the Moultrie-Colquitt County Airport Authority, a group of appointed representatives of the city and county governments. The authority contracts with Anderson Aviation to operate the airport’s services.

Alan Mathis, manager of Anderson Aviation, pointed out the vast difference in traffic between Moultrie Municipal Airport and Spence Field’s runway. In an email to authority members after learning of the TSPLOST project, Mathis estimated  Spence Field handled 125 distinct airplanes during the three days of Sunbelt Expo in October 2011. In addition, he said, four other events at Spence Field attracted 10-15 distinct airplanes each. By his estimates, that adds up to about 185 diistinct airplanes a year.

His figures did not include flights by the two Maule companies. An attempt by The Observer to reach Ray Maule of Maule Flight was unsuccessful.

In contrast, Mathis said in response to a question from The Observer, Moultrie Municipal Airport handled 17,865 operations between Jan. 1 and May 31 of this year. An operation is a take-off or a landing, so if an aircraft took off from the airport, flew around and landed back at the airport, that would be two operations.

“Moultrie Municipal Airport … routinely accommodates Spence’s annual total of distinct aircraft in any two months of the typical year and in a single month during the quail hunting season from October through March,” Mathis told the authority.

Business jets can be split into three categories, Mathis said. Light jets hold 6-8 passengers, and Moultrie Municipal Airport’s 5,100-foot runway can handle them in almost any conditions. Sanderson Farms has three such jets, he said.

Mid-size jets carry up to 10 or 12 passengers, he said. They can operate at Moultrie Municipal in good weather, but the runway’s uncomfortably short for them if it’s wet. Sanderson Farms and National Beef each operate two of this size, Mathis said.

Larger business jets are the same size regional carriers use, although they’re usually configured differently. They seat more than 12 passengers, and Moultrie Municipal can handle them in good weather, Mathis said. The airport receives several of them during quial hunting season.

All of those, of course, could operate well on a 10,000-foot runway.

“I flew in the military for 20 years,” Mathis said. “I operated routinely out of Navy bases flying F-18s and we didn’t have 10,000 feet.”

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